We Do Not Run Mental Illness Placements
We run Mental Health Placements, not mental illness placements. If you’re looking to spend time with people with mental health concerns, you will definitely do so with us. However, the main aim at all of our projects is to promote positive mental health, whether you’re in the treatment room or the classroom.
Volunteers on our placements abroad do not examine patient charts or liaise daily with doctors. Mental health professionals are few and far between in the countries where we work and, as I’m sure you’ll agree, their time is better spent with their patients rather than with us. We have carefully structured sessions where time is set aside for volunteers to speak with clinicians, but these are scheduled just once a month to ensure we are valuing the time of the local practitioners and prioritising patient care over our own experience.
Part of working abroad is accepting difference. To try and apply a Western model of diagnosis or treatment to an Eastern population who, by and large, do not believe in or understand the point of talk therapy and who do not use the APA DSM-5, is not only futile, but disrespectful. We work holistically and are less concerned with an individual’s diagnosis than we are with providing a bright spot in an otherwise dark day.
We are not clinical practitioners. Therefore, the work our teams do on placement is in line with their experience level. We also do not shadow doctors, but instead work independently, running therapeutic, creative and interactive interventions with the aim of improving the key skills of service users as well as promoting positive mental health and overall well-being.
The reason we work in a variety of settings, and not exclusively in psychiatric institutions, is because we work within a model of prevention. We fully believe, as does the World Health Organisation (WHO), that mental health is not simply the lack of mental illness. Therefore, working in the community and providing relief and respite by facilitating sessions that increase human interaction and stimulation for individuals often isolated due to stigma, is a key tool in preventing mental illness. This work is not less important than working with people who reside in psychiatric care. Especially when working in a country where there is such a care deficit in the mental health sector that there is not enough access to treatment and there are not enough beds to contend with the need.
By running sessions designed to increase mental and physical dexterity, our volunteers are actively reducing the amount of people admitted to hospital with mental health concerns, which is the goal! We don’t want our teams to spend more time inside institutions. We want to be out in the community actively working to improve the quality of life for those who are marginalised due to circumstance or poverty.
Prevention is better than cure. If you can add meaning to the life of another, if you can show kindness and compassion to someone without expectation, you are not only actively reducing their risk of developing various mental health concerns and/or addiction issues, you are improving your own mental health as well!
The below tables, which appear in the WHO’s Prevention of Mental Disorders Report, illustrate all the ways in which our engaging, restorative sessions, run by passionate, committed volunteers, can help at-risk individuals and reduce the risk of developing mental health issues in the future. I count 19 different skills our volunteer teams are actively helping to build, which in turn can improve overall mental health.
Ethnic minorities integration
Positive interpersonal interactions
Ability to cope with stress
Early cognitive stimulation
Feelings of security
Feelings of mastery and control
Skills for life
Social and conflict management skills
Social support of family and friends
We know that role modelling key life skills like turn taking and adaptability to an at-risk youth in a classroom is promoting positive mental health. Increasing their confidence and their ability to socialise, at the same time as improving their job prospects by improving literacy, is reducing that person’s risk of developing addiction issues. We also know that dancing with someone with specific needs, who may not have had anyone interact with them that day, is 100% promoting positive mental health and increasing self-esteem. The people at these projects are just as important as those residing in the hospital.
Everyone on our Mental Health Placements will be in contact with people who have a mental health concerns and who are at varying stages of their recovery. However, it’s important our volunteers prioritise the well-being of service users over their own curiosity. We ask those who are morbidly fascinated with illness to refrain from joining our Mental Health Placements, as we know these individuals will never be satisfied with the work we do. They will see only the condition and feel entitled to a person's diagnosis, while disregarding the person. All people deserve respect and we want to make a connection with the human, not the disease.
Our role is to stimulate intellect, spread kindness and hopefully raise some laughter. It is not to hold a magnifying glass over someone else’s pain. We want to work with the community, not against it. When people have suffered such pervasive, collective trauma, the power in meaningful human interaction and compassion cannot be overstated. We want our volunteers to keep service users moving forward, not looking back.
Our volunteers help to shape the future of service users in productive and meaningful ways; making a difference not just today, but long into the future. We know it’s hard and that sometimes it can feel like nothing’s been accomplished, but we also know that’s not true. Often the difference can’t be measured with the eye, but it is felt. It is blooming in the chests and on the faces of service users and community members. It is also evident in the work that's been in progress over the past five years.
We are massively proud to run Mental Health Placements, not mental illness placements, and we’re looking for more people to join us.